Netbooks? Ha! iPads will replace desktop PCs

New information says iPads are replacing netbooks. And laptops. And desktops.

Killer device? It turns out that the iPad may turn out to be the Hannibal Lecter of gadgets.

Although Apple sold only a million or so iPads in the first month, signs are emerging that the device may actually cannibalize significant sales of real computers. (Apple announced that the iPad will go on sale in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and Britain on May 28.)

Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty caused a fuss this week when she released a chart that suggests the iPad may be killing netbook sales.

The growth in netbook sales during April 2008, compared with April 2009, was an insane 641%. But comparing the same month in 2009 to 2010, netbooks grew only 5%.

The idea that iPad apps were already hitting netbook sales was quickly challenged by other analysts. Obviously, 641% growth can't be sustained, and 5% growth is still growth, not decline.

The extreme interpretations of Huberty's report -- that the iPad is killing netbooks already -- are unsupportable. I think iPads will kill netbooks, but they haven't done so yet.

While the analysts are busy analyzing each other, everyone seems to have missed the real story in Huberty's report.

In addition to the netbook data, Huberty released another chart showing which other device categories iPad would "cannibalize" (with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, no doubt). She wrote that 17% of iPad buyers are making their purchase instead of buying a handheld video game player; 28% instead of an e-book reader; and 41% instead of the iPad Touch.

No surprises there, at least to me. Here's the surprising bit: 27% of iPad purchases will be made instead of buying a desktop PC, and 44% instead of a laptop!

That survey data is better illustrated by anecdotal information. A guy named Chuck Hollis, who works as VP and global marketing CTO for EMC Corp., wrote an interesting blog post this week called What iPads Did to My Family.

In the post, Hollis says he bought a $499 iPad out of gadget-lust curiosity. When he went to work, he left it at home. One by one, his wife, two teenagers and one adult kid each discovered the iPad. Long story short, the family's six Macs and PCs are going unused, and everybody is fighting over the iPad. Hollis says he won't be buying desktops or laptops anymore, only more iPads.

A similar thing is happening to my own family. My college-student son has embraced the iPad full time and has been neglecting his big-screen laptop. He does need multitasking, however, so he's considering a second iPad and carrying two.

Why iPad will replace some desktops and laptops

We've been programmed since childhood in the ethos of consumer culture: More is better.

You see this in how products are advertised. You can do this! You can do that! But wait! There's more!

Mainstream desktop PCs and notebooks do more -- a lot more -- than iPads. They have more input options, more applications, more screen real estate.

They give you more, but they demand more. They require more troubleshooting of problems, more general system maintenance, more file management. They require more and constant learning, just to keep them running. Laptops require more frequent charging. They have more "stuff"connected to them. They cost more money.

This constant embrace of "more" has made life way too complex. Just paying bills, getting kids into college and surviving in the modern world feels like a war against a bombardment of increasing complexity.

As a result, people have begun to gravitate toward simplicity. And that's what's going on with the iPad. IPads do less, but they demand much, much less from you.

We geeks will always love our supercomputers. We like to tinker and enjoy problem-solving. But regular people just want to surf the Web, check in on Facebook friends, play some games and watch videos. And you don't need a supercomputer to do that.

No, I don't think iPads have killed netbooks. But they will. And they'll eat huge chunks out of the laptop and desktop market as well.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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